The first question you should ask yourself is whether you actually need a realtor. The harsh reality is that realtors are becoming obsolete. You can get most of the information you need about houses on the market and previous sale prices by looking online. Trulia, Ziprealty, Homeseekers, and Zillow.com are a few sites you can visit to search for available homes in the neighborhood of your choice. These sites offer a wealth of information about each property and allow you to compare listings.
Once you have selected a house, you can submit an offer on your own. I would suggest that you spend a few hundred dollars and have any proposed agreement reviewed by a real estate attorney, who will be much more knowledgeable about the process than a realtor.
With that said, if you are not from the area, a competent realtor (if you can find one) is beneficial. For example, they can refer you to a good home inspector - which is a MUST for any home purchase. Obviously, the best way to find a realtor would be a referral through a trusted advisor such as an accountant, attorney, family friend, etc â€¦. Once you have a few recommendations, interview them and make sure you are comfortable with them and that they have expertise in the specific market you are considering.
If you do use a realtor, MAKE SURE that they rebate or refund part of their commission to you. Many consumers donâ€™t know that most realtors will refund part of their commission (a refund of 25-33% is the market rate). If they are not willing to rebate, there will be many more willing to do so, as the market is slow.
Be VERY WARY of any referral from another realtor. It is just their way of getting their hands on the commission, as they will likely obtain a referral fee from the agent they recommend to you.
Best of luck to you.